When Archana Sharma got married in 1999, she saw it as a chance to keep her family out of poverty after her father's untimely death. A strikingly beautiful folk dancer from the north Indian state of Haryana, the then 25-year-old had turned down several offers to act in regional-language films because she came from a conservative family, consenting instead to wed a Toronto-based astrologer she knew through her maternal uncle. "I agreed to marry a man I had never met, thinking he would take me to a better life in Canada," she says. "Once settled there, I would take my two younger sisters and our mother, too." After a six-week visit for the wedding, her husband returned to Toronto promising to complete the legal formalities for her to join him. But her tickets never came. After six years of waiting, Sharma received documents informing her that she had been divorced.
Stories like Sharma's are growing increasingly common across India, as changing values remove some of the social stigma surrounding failed marriages and concern from activists and officials encourages more women to talk about it. As many as 30,000 women have been abandoned by their émigré husbands, according to one Indian government estimate; activists say the real figures are probably much higher as most cases still go unreported. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), established in 2004 to look after the welfare of an estimated 20 million Non-Resident Indians (NRIS), launched a scheme earlier this year to provide counseling and legal and financial aid for Indian wives abandoned abroad. Closer to home, it has published a booklet for women planning to marry émigrés, to help them verify the credentials of their prospective spouses and their families, take proper legal precautions and seek help if things go wrong. "More such cases are being reported since we started disseminating information about the scheme," says Sandhya Shukla, director of social services at MOIA.
Despite impressive economic growth over the past decade, some 450,000 Indians emigrate to other countries to find work every year, while thousands more go illegally. "For some, going abroad is about seeking better opportunities and social mobility," says Rainuka Dagar, senior research fellow at the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication, "But for many, it is about status. It is a symbol of pride to have a member of the family living and earning abroad." In many communities, "marriage to an NRI is considered a status symbol as it gets the entire family a chance to go abroad," says Santosh Singh, chairperson of the government-affiliated Family Counseling Centre in Chandigarh.
Most of these unions, without doubt, are successful ones. But some overseas marriages can be problematic. At a MOIA conference on the issue in February, Girija Vyas, chairperson of India's National Commission for Women, noted that brides going abroad can suffer from culture shock if they have had no prior exposure to the West. Their overseas-raised spouses, meanwhile, can find themselves pressured into a traditional marriage by émigré parents. The combination can result in loveless, incompatible relationships and eventually, divorce. The worst cases, however, are those "where NRI men come to India seeking either huge dowries or 'holiday wives,'" says Singh. "If they abandon their brides and return to their adoptive countries, the brides and their families, living in a culture of patriarchy and keen to preserve their honor, often do not approach the authorities. And even if they do, there are limited legal options before them."
Government agencies and NGOs are working to change that. The National Commission for Women has demanded that the government make it compulsory to register all marriages, which will provide women a more solid legal standing. Meanwhile, activist groups are lobbying for changes in the law to criminalize the suppression of information about previous marriages, and urging the government to sign agreements with other countries to make marital fraud an extraditable offense. In Punjab, where many families have at least one member working abroad, the left-leaning Lok Bhalai Party has made the plight of abandoned spouses a campaign issue.
But for Sharma, these efforts are still too little, too late. "One odd change of law will not make a difference," she says. "Cases like mine will keep happening until women's status in society improves. And that will be a slow and long process."